Help for the NaNo-Panicked (Part 2)

By Filosofias filosoficas (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (], via Wikimedia CommonsBe Your Own Random Generator

Okay, think of this as a bonus idea if you’re feeling skeptical about the whole idea of using ideas generated by someone else. The germ of this idea comes from the Working Writer’s Daily Planner.

Try to have a quiet block of time when you’re not likely to face many interruptions. Sit down at the computer or grab pen and paper. Now, as quickly as you can, write fifty first lines. You don’t have to know anything about the story they might start. Don’t stop to think too much–if you must, set a timer for twenty minutes and see how many you can do in this amount of time This is just to see what your brain comes up with.

Got that? Good. That’s the part that came from the WWDP. Here’s my expansion on the exercise:

Now start a new list and invent fifty characters. They can be names or short descriptions: “Ludwig Thimbledown” or “a fastidious undertaker” or “a college student with a secret.” They can be archetypes or atypical and unusual. It doesn’t matter. Fifty, as fast as you can.

Getting tired? One more part. A new list, and this time you’re going to write down fifty problems, conflicts, or themes–or any mix of the three. They’re going to be short snappers, like “stolen inheritance” or “demon possession” or “physical loss leads to emotional loss” or “destruction of the natural world.” Whatever pops into your head, jot it down.

Whew! By now your brain is reeling and exhausted, I’m sure. So put your lists away for a little while; an hour or an afternoon or a day. Then when you’re ready, take them out, line them up, and see what happens.

Chances are, there will be some things from each list that you really have no interest in writing about, but others will jump out at you as intriguing. Don’t be afraid to cross some out, highlight others, or put what you feel are the best ones into a separate file or mind map. Play with combinations, try writing a few first paragraphs starting with the lines you like best, put characters and conflicts together, and chances are that story ideas will be sprouting in no time. Sometimes the brain just needs a metaphorical kick in the pants, but the raw material is all in there, just waiting for the right opportunity to make it into the light. Or a chance to mix its metaphors. Or whatever. Just go write!

Image credit: By Filosofias filosoficas (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Help for the NaNo-Panicked (Part 1)

Image courtesy of UncyclomediaOkay, it’s October 5th, 26 days until NaNoWriMo, and you don’t know what you’re writing about. You know folks who have been planning this year’s novel for months (we hates, them, Precious, what has they got in their pocketses? Index cards!), but you have–nothing. No plot, no characters, no ideas.

It’s a horrible place to be, but there’s hope. And that hope has a name–random generators.

As an experiment, one year for NaNoWriMo, I wrote a novel which was almost entirely based on the results of random generators. I started with the title. Then anytime I needed to name a character, create a place or object, or find a plot twist, I went to a generator. I can hear you laughing, but here’s a secret–that novel is one of the ones that I, in my ten-year expedition with NNWM, completed, edited, and am now doing the final line-edit pass on before sending it out to a publisher. It’s one of my best stories. So don’t be too quick to pooh-pooh the idea of generators.

The thing about generators is knowing how to use them. They are great for sparking ideas, putting together ideas that you might not have thought of combining, and pulling words up to the top of your subconscious where you can play with them. You don’t have to feel constrained by them…once that idea is sparking, it will eventually take on a life of its own.

Here is a list of a few generators that I particularly like. Play around with them–don’t just look for loglines, bring up some plot twists, conflicts, character names, oddities, anything at all–and write down anything that sounds interesting. Maybe use a mind map like Freemind to gather together everything that speaks to you, and then look for connections in the jumble of ideas. Think of it as brainstorming, with the help of an outside brain. :) At StoryToolz, you’ll find a generator that gives you three conflicts, and a brief explanation of how to use them to flesh out a story idea. There’s also a random conflict generator, and a half title generator.

Seventh Sanctum: Here you’ll find a motherlode of generators, for all sorts of endeavours. You might want to start with the ones in the writing section for story ideas, but you never know where inspiration will strike!

The Writer’s Den at Pantomimepony: Another great collection of generators, including one for first lines. Sometimes a great first line is all you need to grow a story. (I tried it out and got: “That weekend, shortly before the parrot bit my Dad, Aunt Maude became a gangster’s tailor.” Now really, if you can’t grow a story out of that, there’s something wrong with you!)

Serendipity: Although recovering from a spam attack that took the old site down, the owner has restored some of the generators here and I hope will be able to continue to add more back in–this was one of my favorites.

Archetype: Three nice generators here, along with a link to a great article on all the different ways of beginning your story.

There are lots more generators on the net; if you don’t like these, do a search and find one that suits you. In my next post, we’ll take a look at a way to be your OWN random generator. Sounds like fun, huh?

Social Media Thoughts for Writers (or anyone, really)

I was reading an excellent post the other day titled “Which Social Media Websites Work Best For Writers?“, by Conor P. Dempsey. (He forgot Goodreads, but overall it was a good list.) However, I don’t want to rehash his thoughts here. I mention his post because I like the assumption inherent in his title: writers need social media sites, it’s just a matter of choosing what’s the best use of one’s time.

I know that not all writers (particularly, but not limited to, non-genre writers) see any point in using social media at all. It is often largely described by these writers as a waste of time and a waste of brain power. “I don’t have time”, “I don’t have anything to say”, and “I don’t care about the silly things people talk about on social media sites” are the three main complaints I hear, so Conor’s article got me thinking about them. (Note, too, that these complaints come not just from writers, but from others who are hesitant or downright intolerant of social media.)

Whether or not you believe in the “ebook revolution,” it’s been clear for a number of years that traditional publishing is a) walking a financial tightrope and b) choosing very carefully where to spend advertising and promotional dollars. Mid-list authors have lamented being left out in the cold, new authors have lamented being dropped after one book fails to make the sales grade. This predates the real take-off of ebooks, so it’s not entirely tied into those sea changes, although I think its impact has probably been accelerated.

What writers who don’t “do” social media seem to overlook is that even before the e-valanche of ebooks, there was one thing needed to sell books–readers have to find them. Books have to be accessible, available, find-able. You have to let readers know they’re out there, unless you’re going to depend on the odd reader here or there who finds your book by accident among the myriad covers stacked on bookstore shelves. Publishers used to look after that for you, so you could get on with writing your next book. Except in the case of that handful of authors who don’t even really need it, publishers’ efforts in this case have been severely curtailed. There’s no sense in blaming the publishers–they are making business decisions.

But the upshot is–you’d better do everything you can on your own, to promote your book. To do that, you have to let people know it’s out there.

Now, I live in the back of beyond as far as the book-buying public is concerned, but even if you live smack-dab in the middle of NYC, your personal circle of book-buying readers is limited in scope. If publishers are not going to be out there hawking your book or footing the bill for you to go gallivanting around hawking your book, how are you going to let people know about it?

Social media is a great answer. No ifs, ands, or buts. Unless and until the Internet collapses under the weight of its own information overload, it’s the best tool you have for connecting with your readers.

Does it take time? Yes, it takes some. It needn’t be great gobs of your time, sucked into the black hole of your monitor while you struggle to stay at the edge of the event horizon. But look, you’re a writer. You can’t write a 500-word blog post a few times a week? You can’t share the interesting things you find on that selfsame Internet, or a few random thoughts and updates through Twitter? I think you can. I think you just don’t believe you have to.

Don’t have anything to say? I hardly think so. You’re continually writing stories about fascinating characters (or trying to) and yet in your own life you do nothing of interest? No hobbies, no interests, no travelling, no reading, no movies? You never find anything of interest on the Internet? You never want to talk a bit about your writing process, the story you’re working on right now, or the way your cat/dog/kid/gerbil/spouse did that really cool thing the other day? No? Then I have no idea where you’re getting your stories.

And finally, you can’t be bothered listening to/reading about other people and the silly, pointless things they’re doing or talking about? Well, in the first place, you don’t have to. You only need to learn to control the way you use social media (which sounds like a topic for a future blog post). If you are going to let it control you then, yes, maybe that’s a problem. But it doesn’t have to be like that. Social media has all sorts of tools and tricks you can use to make sure that your incoming stream is not full of garbage. Sure, you might annoy a few followers if you shut them out, but if you’re connecting with hundreds, if not thousands, of potential readers, that’s not a worry.

In the second place, people talking about the silly, pointless things they’re doing can offer great insight into characters and the way they think. It can be like a whole laboratory full of specimens for you to study at will. (insert evil laugh here)

And third, people talk about a lot of things via social media that are neither silly nor pointless. Social media can highlight the most important issue of the day. It can show you how others feel about it. It can point you to information about it. It can inform you how you can act to be a part of it. If you think social media is filled with people talking only about how drunk they were last night or the flavour of chips they’ve just eaten, think again. That’s out there, sure. But there’s a whole lot more that’s important, current, and relevant. And you can have a voice in it.

Readers tend to like that.

Ask a Librarian

The other day I discovered a very cool program offered by the Halifax Public Library system–Ask A Librarian. You can email the research librarians there and ask a basic question. Within a day or two they will try to get back to you with an answer, links to further information, or suggestions for where you should start research for a more in-depth or complex question.

I thought this was a great idea, and I discovered the service precisely because I had a question. I wanted to know if there was a library in Halifax during the time period in which my novel is set (1901). Although I am writing alternate history and don’t have to have all the facts right, I like to be able to integrate some factually correct details along with things I’ve…er…tweaked. So I emailed them on the spot.

The next day I had my answer! A very nice email arrived to tell me that there was indeed a Citizen’s Free Library in Halifax in 1901, housed on the second floor of the City Hall building on Duke Street. The librarian told me the names of the Head Librarian and Assistant Librarian, and sent me a link to the actual catalogue, which I could read online.

I think that’s a fabulous service. I was telling my son and daughter about it and my son said, “Wow, are they Super Librarians?”

Maybe so. :)